Follow your muse and be willing to fail

If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Sir Ken Robinson

Thirty-six satisfactory exposures on a roll means a photographer is not trying anything new.” Freeman Patterson

Casa de Tilapia

The idea behind this article originated after watching a video of Sir Ken Robinson speaking at a 2006 TED conference on why schools kill creativity. Before I go any further, let me first recommend that you watch this 19:29 length video in its entirety. Sir Ken is a brilliant thinker and an engaging and humorous speaker, and you’ll hopefully be as moved by his entire commentary as I was.

The crux of my commentary herein is summarized by Sir Ken five minutes into the video: “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” How exactly does this relate to the photographer/artist? Reflecting on my own history and career, if I had heeded all the advice offered to me, and if I had obeyed all the discouragement and dissuading thrown my way, I might never have had the courage to take my work the places it has gone. I would have never explored and proceeded forth with my own black and white photography; I was told that you can’t sell it and there’s not a big enough market for it. I also would have never explored and experimented with selective- and soft-focus in traditional landscape photography. There was no evidence that I could succeed with either, but I’m stubborn, I bore easily, and I listen to me first.

I’ve begun a new project (photographs coming soon) that is a bit different in concept than anything I’ve done previously, and I’ve already had good friends attempt to invalidate my new work even though I’m excited by it. When you’re trying to grow your work and your style – which is imperative for any artist who doesn’t want to stagnate – you must ignore your naysayers and follow your instincts; they are what drive your art. It is better to have tried and failed then to have listened to those detractors who would have discouraged your explorations in the first place.

I offer here a few suggestions for growing your own art. I didn’t just randomly pull these ideas out of a hat; these are some of the exact steps I took in order to get where I am today. If you’re tired of reproducing your own photographs and tired of your formulaic way of working (shooting fish in a barrel), consider some of these style- and consciousness-altering methods:

    * Be willing to return from a shoot completely empty-handed;
    * Be willing to create your own photographic brand even if you know that not everyone will like it;
    * Recognize that not everyone will like all of your work all of the time; you’re no different than any other artist in this regard;
    * You can never apologize for the work you create, even when someone expresses their direct dislike for it. It is, after all, your work;
    * You must be willing to forgo the obvious and commonplace photographs in order to find your own photographic voice;
    * You must be willing to let go of all your preconceived notions about what your photographs should or must look like. They don’t have to be sharply focused or highly detailed (great work is being done with iPhone’s!); they don’t have to contain beauty or anything beautiful; and they don’t have to provide a documentary representation of the location in which you are shooting;
    * If you feel like the photograph you’re about to make might be derivative, it probably is;
    * Your photographs must represent you and your photographic voice in a compelling and engaging manner;
    * Your art is a journey, never a destination. You’ll never know your potential until you allow it to come forth;
    * Be willing to fail. Not every experiment is successful, yet there’s something to be learned from every experiment.

Finally, make lots and lots of photographs, for exploration is the key to discovery.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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15 thoughts on “Follow your muse and be willing to fail

  1. Lots of great points made here, Michael. The three I most identify with are “be prepared to fail”, “be willing to return from a shoot empty-handed” and “recognize that not everyone will like all of your work all of the time.”

    It took me quite a while to reach the point where I didn’t give a damn if everyone (or anyone, really) liked my images. I photograph for me, to express my own creativity and to make myself happy. Of course, it’s always nice when others appreciate my art but the bottom line is that I’ve got to make myself happy.

    Great post!

  2. Probably one of the most honest and relevant postings I’ve read this year on any blog. Excellent, Michael. The linked video was great as well. Thank you.

    BTW – I’m looking forward to seeing the new project you’ve started, sounds intriguing.

  3. Well said, Michael. I couldn’t agree more. We must follow our own muse wherever it leads. Now if I didn’t care so much about what people think, it would be easier, but I follow my own muse anyway.

  4. You mean I have to let go of the Rule of Thirds? Great article that I can really relate to. Many years ago I grabbed some snaps of some ice crystal patterns that hat formed on my window. My girlfriend (now wife) thought I was a little off. Years later the same technique and same kinds of photos were featured in a popular photo mag. I had been redeemed!

  5. “You must be willing to let go of all your preconceived notions about what your photographs should or must look like”

    THAT is what I would consider my biggest fault and what I’m struggling with at this very moment. I’m sure I’m not alone in this (oh, please don’t let me be the only one!)

    Looking forward to seeing the new project.

  6. Great article Michael. Most of it was used this week as I spent a week exploring, photographing and just seeing what I could see. But I’ve bookmarked this as a reminder for a read the next time I go out. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Today’s Shared Links for April 22, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0

  8. Very well said, Michael.

    For me, it is all about personal satisfaction. Some of my own favorite images did not wow anyone else, but what matters is that I like them. If others like them, so much the better, but that is not a priority.

  9. THANKS so much for the comments, everyone!

    Dan: The irony is that we shouldn’t care what people think about the work we create, but we want people to like it (and buy it). It’s tough balancing these, but we inevitably need supporters and buyers in order to continue the work we are doing.

    Saeed: You’re so very right.

    THANKS again everyone!

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